Kansas officials rebuff lawsuit seeking voting machine records

(Photo credit: Justin Grimes/Flickr)

Voting records, so long as they don’t personally identify the people voting, should be public records to ensure the validity of elections. They provide valuable checks and balances for our electoral process. That’s why we here at the Sunlight Foundation are watching a lawsuit playing out in Kansas involving electronic voting machines.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, R, has asked a judge in Wichita to block the release of voting machine paper tapes from the November 2014 election, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Wichita State University statistician Beth Clarkson is seeking the records — which do not contain any personally identifiable data — to analyze statistical aberrations she discovered in electronic voting machines.

In June, her research was published in StatsLife and includes analysis of the 2012 Ohio presidential race, the 2014 Wisconsin governor’s race and the 2014 Kansas Senate race. She found the results showed anomalies that tended to favor Republicans.

Clarkson emphasized that the results don’t definitively prove fraud, though the results of her analysis are what statisticians would likely see if someone had tampered with the voting machines. She stated that there could be other explanations for the patterns. For that reason, she would like to perform an audit.

Her home county, Sedgwick County, provided a unique opportunity: Unlike many places using electronic voting machines, Sedgwick County still kept paper records. She told the Lawrence Journal World newspaper she thought the hard part would be doing the computations, not obtaining the records from her county.

However, election officials there told her the records were not available under Kansas’ Open Records Act. In addition, they told her that the records would be impossible to reproduce because each roll is about 385 feet long and stored in 42 boxes, with each vote taking up around 27.5 inches of paper. The votes are also not segregated by precinct or voting district.

Clarkson filed a lawsuit for the records earlier this year.

Just last week, Secretary of State Kobach filed a legal challenge to the suit. It states the records are sealed by state statute and that he is not the custodian of the records. It also points out Clarkson filed a similar lawsuit for the paper records in 2013 and was denied access to the paper trail. The judge ruled that the records, even though they did not contain personally identifiable information, were still ballots.

Several newspapers in Kansas, from Winfield to Kansas City, have asked for the records to be released in the interest of transparency. Kobach has previously responded to their opinion pieces with his own op-ed stating that the Kansas Open Records Act does not allow for the release of ballots. He believes that Kansas’ law requires that ballots be kept secret even if names and other identifying information are redacted.

Kobach has been a vocal advocate of voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud. In 2011, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, R, signed a law requiring voters to present a picture ID when casting a vote to prove U.S. citizenship.

Clarkson’s research certainly raises questions warranting additional investigation — and without those records, questions linger. In the interest of transparency and to calm fears from voters still wary about electronic voting machines, this paper trail should be open for inspection.